Russell-Knowledge by Acquaintance and Knowledge by Description

Topics: Bertrand Russell, Abstraction, Ontology Pages: 20 (7696 words) Published: November 18, 2012

KNOWLEDGE BY ACQUAINTANCE I53 Knowledge by Acquaintance and

Knowledge by Description
Bertrand Russell

Russell, Bertrand (1917). Knowledge by acquaintance and knowledge by description. Proceedings of the Aristotelian Society, 1910-1911. Reprinted in his his Mysticism and Logic (London: George Allen & Unwin Ltd.: 1917). Reprinted Totowa, New Jersey: Barnes & Noble Books, 1951, pp. 152-167. Pagination here matches the latter.) THE object of the following paper is to consider what it is that we know in cases where we know propositions about 'the so-and-so' without knowing who or what the so-and-so is. For example, I know that the candidate who gets most votes will be elected, though I do not know who is the candidate who will get most votes. The problem I wish to consider is: What do we know in these cases, where the subject is merely described ? I have considered this problem elsewhere1 from a purely logical point of view; but in what follows I wish to consider the question in relation to theory of knowledge as well as in relation to logic, and in view of the above-mentioned logical discussions, I shall in this paper make the logical portion as brief as possible. In order to make clear the antithesis between 'acquaintance' and 'description', I shall first of all try to explain what I mean by 'acquain- tance'. I say that I am acquainted with an object when I have a direct cognitive relation to that object, i.e. when I am directly aware of the object itself. When I speak of a cognitive relation here, I do not mean the sort of relation which constitutes judgment, but the sort which constitutes presentation. In fact, I think the relation of subject and object which I call acquaintance is simply the converse of the relation of object and subject which constitutes presentation. That is, to say that S has acquaintance with O is essentially the same thing as to say that O is presented to S. But the associations and natural extensions of the word acquaintance are different from those of the word presentation. To begin with, as in most cognitive words, it is natural to say that I am acquainted with an object even at moments when it is not actually before my mind, provided it has been before my mind, and will be again whenever occasion arises. This is the same sense in which I am said to know that 2+2=4 even when I am thinking of something else. In the second place, the word

1 See references later.

acquaintance is designed to emphasize, more than the word presen- tation, the relational character of the fact with which we are concerned. There is, to my mind, a danger that, in speaking of presentation, we may so emphasize the object as to lose sight of the subject. The result of this is either to lead to the view that there is no subject, whence we arrive at materialism; or to lead to the view that what is presented is part of the subject, whence we arrive at idealism, and should arrive at solipsism but for the most desperate contortions. Now I wish to preserve the dualism of subject and object in my terminology, because this dualism seems to me a fundamental fact concerning cognition. Hence I prefer the word acquaintance, because it emphasizes the need of a subject which is acquainted.

When we ask what are the kinds of objects with which we are acquainted, the first and most obvious example is sense-data. When I see a colour or hear a noise, I have direct acquaintance with the colour or the noise. The sense-datum with which I am acquainted in these cases is generally, if not always, complex. This is particularly obvious in the case of sight. I do not mean, of course, merely that the supposed physical object is complex, but that the direct...
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